Seen from La Courneuve

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'If you don't wear a scarf, you can be called a whore'

Everyone agrees on one fact: in La Courneuve, religious practice is both more widespread and more ostentatious than it was a few years ago. "There are more veils and headscarves than five or six years ago," notes Communist Party mayor Gilles Poux. He sees this as a negative development; "This rise in religious sentiment, of any religion, doesn't encourage human freedom," he explains. "The trouble is, faced with life's problems, people seek in religion what they don't find elsewhere in society."

The mayor's Socialist opponent, Stéphane Troussel, agrees. "There is a mushrooming of small prayer rooms: evangelist churches, Indian temples. In the [Christian] churches there are more people than 10 or 15 years ago, especially people from the French West Indies," he comments.

On Fridays, the faithful burst from the seven 'mosques' in La Courneuve. Before the local elections last March, the mayor decided that the community should build "a mosque worthy of the name" and accorded a long-term lease on favourable terms for a plot in the city centre. But "the project would cost about four million euros," mayor Poux now argues, "and the population is poor. The capacity to organise isn't there." The project immediately created tensions and led to power struggles. After the local elections, Indian Muslims bought a house to use as their own cultural and prayer centre. Completion of the mosque project, scheduled for 2013, seems very uncertain.

In the meantime, existing mosques, such as the one on Place François Villion, which opened in 1982, overflow onto the streets. But this steady attendance and high visibility doesn't necessarily indicate radicalisation.

"Job discrimination" is the major problem linked to Islam says Hassan Safoui, executive board member of the UOIF, The Union of French Islamic Organisations. The UOIF is headquartered at La Courneuve, and their mosque will soon expand. As for other issues, in public services, for example, "these concern such a small number of cases that they're not worth mentioning. Everything is blown out of proportion. All it takes is for a woman or two to refuse care by a male doctor for it to be picked-up and repeated over and over again."

The mayor says such cases are "rare" at the public-health medical centre. "In two years, there were maybe ten or 12 cases of this kind out of about 300 visits per day at the centre. It's a micro-phenomenon even if it is true that ten years ago it didn't happen at all. But there is no reason for concern," he concludes.

In another revered public institution, the education system, the concerns and debates are more numerous. While many Muslims regret that it was passed, the 2004 law banning headscarves in schools has not raised any practical application problems. Even more astounding, there was no resulting influx to the Islamic secondary school 'La Réussite' (meaning 'Success'), situated in neighbouring Aubervillers.

But this doesn't mean the question is settled. Although a majority of Muslims believe that most of the young women who wear headscarves do so freely (see Nora's portrait coming next in this series), mayor Poux is not convinced that is always the case. "There is a social pressure on young women to follow the rules," he says. "In the public housing estates, if you don't wear the scarf, if you wear shorts, you can be called a whore. You didn't hear that sort of thing 15 years ago."

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